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Iraq Extends Grip in Kurdish North

Mideast: Baghdad's ally takes Sulaymaniyah, effectively giving Hussein sway over region for first time since 1991. U.S. says it still has upper hand in conflict.

September 10, 1996|ROBIN WRIGHT and HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Kurdish forces backed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Monday swept into Sulaymaniyah, effectively extending Baghdad's control over all of northern Iraq for the first time since the United States created a Kurdish haven after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Sulaymaniyah--with a population of about 750,000--had been the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has waged serious battle with the Hussein-backed Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) since last month.

Thousands of refugees fled to the Iranian border about 30 miles to the east. Radio Tehran claimed that half a million Kurds were homeless or seeking refuge and appealed for outside aid to avoid "a human tragedy."

The capture of Sulaymaniyah occurred on the same day as the town of Dukan fell to the KDP, giving the group control of a dam that supplies water and power to the region.

The 10-day campaign, run by Iraq's Republican Guard and fought largely by the KDP, represents a major setback for U.S. policy on Iraq. That policy is under increasing criticism from allies and rivals.

"This is a huge victory," said a leading member of the Iraqi National Congress, a multiethnic coalition of resistance groups that once included both Kurdish factions and is backed by the CIA. Hussein "showed that America's word does not count for much. He showed the north was his for the taking. And he showed that it is idle and counterproductive and useless to work against him at home."

U.S. officials admitted Monday that the United States had lost a key battle to the Hussein regime. Yet the Clinton administration, now debating its options, claims it is still better positioned to win the longer war. "Hussein has achieved a tactical success through a Kurdish quisling," a senior Pentagon official said Monday. "But from our view, the United States has imposed a strategic penalty on him in the south where we both have greater interests. So we feel we're ahead."

President Clinton last week ordered strikes on Iraqi air defense installations in southern Iraq and extended the southern "no-fly" zone north from the 32nd parallel to the 33rd parallel, which is near the southern outskirts of Baghdad.

The United States is now digging in for what is likely to be a protracted crisis, as Hussein tries to play to both international public opinion and his own domestic constituency. "He wants to be seen as fighting back against the Americans," an administration official said.

U.S. options are now limited. Among those being discussed is extending the southern "no-fly" zone even farther north to the 34th parallel, which would include Baghdad. "We will try to keep our focus on our strategic interests, which are in the center and the south of Iraq, and not be diverted," the Pentagon official said.

But U.S. options inside Iraq are now constrained, especially after its intelligence operations have been destroyed. Sources confirmed over the weekend that when Iraqi troops swept into northern Iraq on Aug. 31, they exposed and executed a cadre of agents that the United States had relied on to conduct a large covert operation to overthrow Hussein.

In Washington, the CIA denied a report Monday that Director John M. Deutch had promised U.S.-backed efforts to topple Hussein would succeed within a year. "Deutch did not make such a promise, nor would it have been prudent to make such a promise," CIA spokesman Dennis Boxx said.

Other officials said Deutch, in internal administration meetings, had forecast early success for the $20-million secret operation against the Iraqi dictator. But Boxx said the officials' accounts were "preposterous."

In a public, written response to questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee in February, Deutch reported the outlook for Hussein's regime was worsening. "Saddam's prospects of survival for another year are declining," he said then. But he made no prediction of when the regime might fall.

Iraqi opposition officials said Monday that the northern victories meant Hussein had, in fact, made a comeback. "Saddam is now in better shape than at any time since the Gulf War," said the ranking official with the Iraqi National Congress.

The losing PUK faction charged that Washington had basically ceded control of the north to Hussein by redefining the issues at stake and hiding from responsibility by blaming the trouble on a Kurdish civil war. "The pretext of a Kurdish civil war should not take away from the fact that Saddam's aggression is succeeding and his challenge to U.S. policy is prevailing," said Barham Saleh, PUK representative in Washington. "We made a fatal mistake in depending on the American commitment, and our people are paying for it with their lives."

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